MANILA, Philippines ? Heritage covers such scope that its totality is difficult to grasp. Many of us compartmentalize heritage into one of its many components: music, dance, visual arts, architecture, literature, language, costumes, cuisine, depending on where our interests may happen to lie.
Often we fail to realize that all of the components interrelate, that each component forms a vital part that weaves into the splendid tapestry of our own national identity.
Focused (or hung up) as many of us might be on Philippine lowland Christian culture, our many cultural communities and indigenous peoples have gone unnoticed and misunderstood.
Among them are the Mangyans of Mindoro.
The Philippines is an archipelago of 7,107 islands with a population of 84 million speaking over 120 languages.
Out of the 110 indigenous peoples (IP) groups in the country today, only four still use their original scripts. Other ethno-linguistic groups now write in the Roman alphabet of the colonizers.
The endangered script of the Hanunuo and Buhid Mangyans from Mindoro, and of the Tagbanua and Palawan tribes from Palawan were declared National Cultural Treasures in 1997, and were inscribed in the Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Memory of the World Register in 1999.
However, the Hanunuo Mangyan script is very much alive and being taught in Hanunuo Mangyan schools.
Mangyan is the generic name for the eight IP groups found in the mountainous regions of Mindoro island?the Alangan, Bangon, Buhid, Hanunuo, Iraya, Ratagnon, Tadywan and Tau-buid, a combined population of 100,000.
Mangyans, with eight different languages and cultural traditions, possess a rich and distinctive cultural and literary heritage. One manifestation is the various traditional musical instruments used during festivities, special occasions and for courting: guitar, violin, flute, gong, and jew?s-harp.
With a pointed knife, Hanunuo Mangyans inscribe notes and poems on bamboo trees in the forests or on bamboo slats. These ambahans?written or recited in poetic language?allegorically express situations or characteristics.
The Hanunuo and Buhid Mangyans weave and embroider their own traditional attire. The Iraya and Alangan Mangyans skillfully weave nito and rattan into elaborate baskets. The other groups also produce baskets, bags, hats, hammocks and other crafts made of forest vines, and all the eight tribes practice beadwork. These are a main source of their livelihood.
Mangyans plant upland rice, corn, beans, bananas and root crops using swidden farming done in total reverence for the environment.
Mangyans have strongly retained their cultural identity. Much of their traditions and beliefs are in practice, despite some having converted to Christianity. Intermarriage with non-Mangyans is limited.
The Mangyans, considered as the first inhabitants of the island of Mindoro, believe that ?land is life? and from it emanates their distinct and rich culture.
Unfortunately they do not have security of land tenure. Their unrecognized traditional right over their ancestral domain is evident in the continuous influx of so-called government development projects. Private business interests have also harassed them: mining, tourism, hydro-power, and even reforestation. Illegal titling of lands by non-Mangyans also continues.
The implementation of these projects often undermines their culture and traditional right to protect, manage and utilize the resources in their ancestral domain. More important, the Mangyans have lost their land to these projects.
Mangyan settlements are mostly found in the interior, mountainous region of Mindoro, in land classified by the government as Forest Zone and Public Domain.
The Mangyans? subsistence-level livelihood is based on swidden cultivation: planting upland rice, sweet potatoes, corn, beans, bananas, cassava, yams and other root crops.
The few with low-lying farmland in irrigated areas have ventured into lowland farming, planting cash crops and permanent crops, particularly fruit trees. Some gather vines and firewood.
Most Mangyan settlements are not accessible by road. Rivers that flood during the rainy season separate settlements from each other, often cutting off direct access to government social services like education and health.
There are few public elementary schools, no public high school, and no functional health center. Public elementary schools in Mangyan communities usually do not offer all the elementary grade levels. Classes are multi-grade. Teachers do not report regularly. There are few or no books at all for students.
Students walk for hours and make numerous river crossings to go to school, which can be dangerous for young children.
High expenses prevent attendance by Mangyans in high school, which are situated in the lowlands. Individual sponsors or nongovernment organizations support the few who do finish secondary and tertiary levels. Functional literacy for adults and out-of-school youth is continuously provided by nongovernment organizations and, lately, by the government.
Aside from educational problems, there also exists a difficulty of access to government health units or health centers, which are located in town centers or lowland communities.
Few Mangyan local government units or barangays have been established. The majority of the Mangyan population belongs to lowlander-led barangay units.
Before the last decade, no Mangyan was elected to a municipal or higher position, further limiting the indigenous people?s opportunities to be heard and to participate in decision-making. There are also very few Mangyan government employees.
Discrimination by lowlanders hinders Mangyans from attaining the development level they deserve. Lowlanders often buy their products at very low prices. Often the Mangyans are exploited.
The Mangyan situation illustrates the complexity of heritage conservation. To preserve the endangered traditional script, language, literature, crafts and lifestyle, there is need to improve their education, livelihood and governance.
However, any government or NGO assistance given to the Mangyans must not be done in an insensitive manner. Any kind of help must be granted with vision?in the framework of true understanding of the Mangyan culture, ensuring its preservation, but also giving the people the benefits of the 21st century.
At 6 p.m. today, the Mangyan Heritage Center will launch a major exhibit on Mangyan culture at the GSIS Museum. The exhibit will feature old and contemporary photographs depicting the Mangyan?s way of life; as well as artifacts from the different Mangyan tribes, such as the rich Hanunuo Mangyan poetry and syllabic script.
Elaborate Mangyan handicrafts, books and greeting cards will be available for sale. The exhibit runs until April 20, and is open Tuesday-Saturday, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
To volunteer assistance, or to inquire about the purchase of Mangyan crafts and products, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.mangyan.org.
Feedback is welcome at email@example.com